Dec 21, 2016

A Look at the New High-End Japanese Barbecue Concept that Panda Express Has Brought to the U.S.

YakiYan is a Taiwanese chain that recently partnered with Panda Restaurant Group (best known for the Panda Express chain) to open their first location in the US. The new restaurant serves high-end Japanese barbecue featuring premium and locally-sourced beef in a dining experience that lasts roughly two hours.

Courtesy of Panda Restaurant Group, I was allowed to preview the new restaurant before its grand opening on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 5:00 PM.

The partnership with Panda Express comes as the company looks to bring interesting overseas concepts to the American market, similar to the launch of Uncle Tetsu earlier this fall.

YakiYan serves yakiniku in the omakase style: Rather than selecting various cuts of meat a la carte as you might with Korean barbecue or other yakiniku restaurants, diners will be served the chef's tasting menu that encompasses a variety of cuts and preparations. The menu will change regularly but includes vegetarian-fed, all-natural USDA Prime grade beef, American wagyu from Snake River Farms, and imported Japanese wagyu. In addition, the restaurant features a small plates menu and bar in case you haven't the time or inclination for the full two-hour tasting experience.

Each course typically consisted of a specific cut of meat and was cooked at the table grill by our servers, who were incredibly knowledgeable regarding the different offerings. While grilling, each server explained not only the cut of the beef, but the origin, expected taste profile, and breed information and were able to answer any additional questions we had.

As a starter, we were served chawanmushi, a savory egg custard with sea urchin, popularly known as uni, and mushroom. Uni has a briny, salty taste and velvety texture that went well with the silky egg.

The first course of beef consisted of rare ribeye served three ways: tataki, carpaccio, and tartare. The meat was pounded to great tenderness and flavored with light but complementary marinades. The tartare was served in a ponzu-based dressing with a raw egg mixed in, whereas the carpaccio was topped with yuzu jelly and slivered almonds. The tataki was lightly salted and served with garlic and ginger on the side.

The second course featured moderately thick slices of Angus tongue. Tongue can be a tough meat if not properly cooked and is usually thinly sliced for grilling, but the tongue we were served was actually tender yet firm, and was surprisingly marbled. I was pretty amazed seeing the fat on the tongue render while on the grill.

The third and fourth courses featured two different portions of the ribeye cut. The inside, which is the large eye of meat in the center of the steak, features slightly less marbling but boasts an intense beefy flavor. The portions served to us at YakiYan were fairly thick and most closely resembled a traditional steak; it was meaty, had a nice chew to it, and was just a little less marbled than the other offerings of the night. It was served with the house yakiniku sauce, a sweet and savory soy-based sauce.

The ribeye cap is the tender outside of the ribeye cut. The meat was juicy, flavorful, marbled, and exceptionally tender--it felt like it just melted in my mouth. It was flavorful enough to need no sauce or additional seasoning whatsoever, which is how the chef recommended we enjoy the course.

In between the two ribeye courses, they brought out a palate cleanser of assorted veggie sticks and miso paste.

For the fifth and sixth courses, we received American wagyu boneless short rib. American wagyu is a cross-breed of Angus and Japanese wagyu and has the desirable marbling of the Japanese breed while retaining the strong beef flavor that American cows are known for.

The first preparation saw the short rib thinly sliced and you can see the fine netting of fat interspersed throughout the meat. It was a rich cut of meat and it felt like there was almost a thick coating of beef fat on my tongue as I chewed, which only enhanced that desired beef flavor.

In the second preparation, we received cubes of the short rib that were marinated in the house yakiniku sauce. Although it took a while to grill due to the size, it was quite interesting to watch the cubes cook because the meat began to split into layers as the fat rendered. The short rib cubes had the same richness as the thin slices, but it felt even meatier and more decadent simply due to the size of the cut.

The next palate cleanser we were served consisted of an entire skinned momotaro tomato dressed in ponzu sauce. The momotaro is a hybrid tomato that has a sweeter flavor and is popular in Japan. It was refreshing to have the salad after the intense richness of the American wagyu right before.

The seventh course consisted of paper thin but large slices of imported Japanese wagyu, served with a tangy sesame dressing. The beef was tender and incredibly marbled; this really is the kind of meat that just melts in your mouth due to the fat content. Where the cut lacked that beefy flavor, it more than made up for in richness and texture. This was probably the most traditional yakiniku course of the evening.

The eighth course was a real treat: filet mignon served over bone marrow rice. I'd never had bone marrow before so I was quite excited to try it. The roasted bone marrow came out on a plate and the server scooped the marrow into a mixing bowl with rice and diced kimchi. The grilled filet mignon was dipped into a mini simmering pot of yakiniku sauce, sliced garlic, and rendered beef fat, which was then served atop the rice mixture. The bone marrow more than compensated for the leanness of the filet mignon and lent the rice a meaty, buttery flavor. I appreciated that it was something different from the series of grilled meats alone.

I also got to experience the "bone luge," which is a shot of whiskey poured direct through the bone marrow cavity. It's something of a secret menu item (wink wink), but it was definitely a fun experience and one of my personal highlights of the night!

We were brought a final palate cleanser of some fresh, sweetened yuzu juice before the ninth course for the evening: outside skirt steak. Most of the skirt steak actually consumed is the inner portion (think carne asada), whereas outside skirt steak is better marbled and more tender but less widely available. It had an outstanding, meaty flavor and the nicely-rendered fat made it rich but not overwhelming. The beef was quite tender but still had enough of that fibrous texture due to the thick grain that made it really pleasant to chew.

In addition to the omakase menu, I got to sample two of YakiYan's cocktails. The Pagoda, a gin and yuzu sparkling cocktail, tasted lightly tart and refreshing. The Green Kimono featured an interesting mix of rum, lemon, and matcha green tea powder for a slightly bitter, complex, and sweet flavor. Unfortunately, there are no pictures of the Green Kimono because I was too overeager to drink it!

We ended the night with some green tea and black sesame gelato. The green tea gelato tasted pretty standard but I was quite a fan of the black sesame gelato because it had a very intense and nutty sesame flavor and wasn't overly sweet.

By and large, you can expect a decadent dining experience at YakiYan for a very reasonable price. The chef's tasting menu currently runs between $50 to $70, although the price is subject to change along with the menu. Considering the typical cost of the premium cuts featured on the menu, the price is very competitive. This is the dining experience for those who like to savor their food and enjoy an interactive cooking experience. It's certainly a unique experience, especially in comparison to Korean barbecue, and one which I consider very worthwhile.

Panda Express has future plans to open some more locations, although it will be a small expansion considering the target market of YakiYan's concept.

By Renee.

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